Our new module Advancing social psychology (DD317) introduces psychoanalysis as a distinctive social psychological approach. What insights can it offer? As an example, a member of the DD317 module team continues a previous discussion of Doctor Who by offering a psychoanalytic interpretation of one particular episode.
An earlier entry on this blog pondered some of the social psychological angles from which to shed some light on the unique cultural phenomenon that is Doctor Who. Yet, given that the longest-running science fiction series in the world embodies an almost Shakespearian quality of engaging many people on many levels, some further thoughts might be welcome. Here I utilise the psychoanalytic distinction between fantasising (in the sense of conscious daydreaming) and unconscious phantasies that result from our inability to tackle some real (and really frightening) emotional dilemmas.
The relevance of this distinction to Doctor Who occurred to me during the Matt Smith era, when I was watching the episode Night Terrors. As I recall, the episode featured the Doctor receiving a psychic message whilst being out and about at the edge of the universe. He takes the message, “Please save me from the monsters!”, with utmost seriousness. It is, he says, only some enormous scare that would make a message like that be delivered that far. It then turns out that the message in question was written by an eight-year-old child by the name of George, who, despite living amidst the mundane surroundings of a British estate, is convinced there are monsters living in his cupboard. Whilst we (but not the Doctor, of course) all know that this is completely impossible, we are also not utterly surprised when the Doctor’s two companions, Amy and Rory, disappear into the cupboard to be chased by some freakish looking giant dolls with a lovely chuckle and a not-so-lovely lethal embrace.
Now these dolls are monsters and the thrill of the episode may be attributed to their monstrous attributes. Yet, as we subsequently learn in the episode, they are mere products of the child’s phantasy. The child, you see, is not quite what he seems to be. As the Doctor figures out, he is a Tenza child, an empathic and otherwise benevolent alien who needs a host family to survive. George’s “parents” on the estate, Alex and Clare, were not able to have a child of their own – yet they really wanted one. This is what the Tenza creature could sense and it then turned itself into the embodiment of Alex and Clare’s wish: George. Using a “perception filter”, he made Alex and Clare believe that he was really their biological son and forget that they never had one, that Clare was never pregnant (this is what the Doctor spots when looking at family photographs!) and the likes.
What no magic can achieve, though, is to assuage George’s (i.e., the Tenza creature’s) profound fear that his hoax will one day come to light and he will then be got rid of. His way of coping with his fear is to put it in the cupboard. Yet, as you may suspect by now, this strategy rather backfired as it gradually transformed the cupboard into the giant container of all sorts of monsters and evils – some of whom are right now chasing Amy and Rory!
So what exactly is my point with all this?... It is that the Doctor’s realisation that as the monster dolls are actually arising out of George’s fear they will only be pacified if George faces up to his fears is essentially a psychoanalytic insight. For the fear and its objects (i.e., WHAT or WHO George is afraid of) will indeed become fantastic if banished to phantasy. They will grow out of all proportions and acquire all sorts of characteristics they would never have in broad daylight. And when George becomes able to open his eyes and replace the frightful magical mantra (“Please save me from the monsters”) that reached the Doctor at the other end of the universe with the action of facing up to those phantasy monsters – they immediately disappear.
What does not disappear, of course, is George’s original fear of abandonment. And even without being coloured by his fearful phantasy, that is no small issue either (after all, if it was, it would not have had to be pushed into the cupboard!). As Alex and Clare were tricked into “adopting” the non-human creature George originally was (or still is?), how will they react on learning this? We have recovered from the relief of Amy and Rory surviving the doll scare, but we suddenly focus on George. His feelings are no longer banished from consciousness and therefore phantastically frightening. But recovering them into conscious thought also exposes him to the original fear, and indeed some frightening reality, that he couldn't previously face. What is now in the open is that he is not a human but a Tenza, as is the prospect that he was originally defending himself against: that upon learning this and realising they have been tricked, Alex and Clare will show him the door.
How does the episode end? We all know how. The common family history which Alex, Clare and George have shared proves stronger than blood. Alex and Clare's original wish has really made the Tenza creature into George and they would never ever contemplate giving up this George, their son.
Look up more information about our new Level 3 module Advancing social psychology (DD317) (which unfortunately doesn't feature Doctor Who)